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Visions of Orwell in the Refugee Crisis

If we follow some of our politicians, the Middle Eastern refugee crisis threatens to turn us into pigs.

September 17, 2015

If we follow some of our politicians, the Middle Eastern refugee crisis threatens to turn us into pigs.

There is an old Chinese saying that even the longest journey begins with a small step.

For one family fleeing war at home and hoping to find shelter in Europe, the journey began with a trip. That was when a camerawoman working for Hungary’s nationalist TV channel tripped a man carrying a child on the Serbian border.

But what we have failed to see so far is that it is also our journey that began with that particular trip-up. It is a journey that, if some of our politicians have their way, could turn us from human beings into Orwellian pigs.

The channel fired the camerawoman, but the Hungarian government is squarely behind her. It has imposed a three-year jail sentence on refugees daring to enter the country illegally.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban doesn’t give a hoot about the refugees. He’s using them for his own purposes – to stir nationalist sentiments and historic hatred of Muslims – Hungary was under the Turkish rule for some 150 years until 1699.

The Hungary-Russia-Israel alliance

The Hungarians respond well to Orban’s belligerent nationalist rhetoric. His government has an overwhelming majority in parliament. An even more rabid party, Jobbik – whose platform revolves around a promise to kick the country’s sizable Roma minority out – is also quite popular.

In other countries with right-wing governments, the sentiment is depressingly similar. For instance in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is enjoying an 86% support rating and seems set to rule for life. Or, more surprisingly, in Israel, where the Likud’s own Benjamin Netanyahu also looks like a lifelong leader.

In both countries, there has been undisguised display of Schadenfreude. Now those liberal Europeans, who have always counseled us so generously to behave better, will be hoisted on their own petards.

In this view, the Europeans will be overwhelmed by the ignorant and vicious Muslim hordes, they’ll suffer from terrorist attacks by jihadists, they’ll knock on Russia’s door begging it to let them move to Siberia, they’ll study Israel’s experience on how to keep those Muslims in check, etc.

Playing to humanity’s baser instincts

The refugee crisis has been a godsend for racists everywhere. The Internet is full of pictures showing Islamist refugees battling German cops and waving an ISIS banner (not true) and claims that ISIS, having planted hundreds of fighters among the refugees, is now shipping them arms (not supported by any evidence).

National leaders in some countries are also capitalizing on the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment. Denmark has closed its border with Germany.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states, faithful to their Soviet heritage, are extremely reluctant to resettle any Syrians. And refugees have been warning each other to stay clear of Bulgaria, where early arrivals have been hunted down by thugs.

In the UK, David Cameron plans to accept 20,000 refugees over the next five years – not those living in camps or still trying to get out, mind you, but who have already reached the safety of Europe.

This is the same Britain, of course, that bears a singular co-responsibility for this wave of refugees, having participated in George W. Bush’s wanton invasion of Iraq – the most important factor bringing ISIS to life.

Cameron accompanied his “generous” offer by declaring that this shows Britons’ well-known compassion. In the language of the Internet, this is called trolling. And, in fact, Cameron is trolling Brussels: the refugee crisis feeds nicely into his plans to get the UK out of United Europe.

U.S. message to world: Our “boat is full”

And then there is the United States. There is no chance of the Republican Congress ever voting to allow a single additional Syrian to America.

In light of the orgy of anti-immigrant scaremongering unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s decision to resettle 10,000 looks almost quixotic.

Even without any Syrians or Iraqis coming to the United States, the Donald has already succeeded in turning a sizeable portion of the American electorate into pigs.

The analogy with the pigs from George Orwell’s Animal Farm is remarkably apt. Those pigs had been ordinary farm animals on Farmer Jones’ farm — until they led an animal rebellion and ensconced themselves as new masters in the manor house, exploiting their fellow-beasts.

The truth is that pretty much every modern nation has suffered from wars, invasions and religious persecution, forcing families to flee their homes and rely on the kindness of strangers. We forget this at our own peril.

Selfishness galore

Israel is the most blatant example. A nation that emerged from the tragedy of the European Jewry isn’t going to take a single refugee from its closest neighbor, Syria, fleeing from its mortal enemies, ISIS and Bashar al-Assad.

Russians, meanwhile, should also keep in mind that, after the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war, two million of their countrymen were accommodated by the rest of the world.

An unknown number were resettled after World War II, as well, as they fled the brutality of Stalin’s regime. Starting in the 1990s, there has been a massive economic migration out of Russia, too.

And of course the Donald is himself a descendent of refugees or economic migrants – as are the overwhelming majority of his supporters.

The German exception – and other ones

Fortunately, not everyone is willing to eat at this particular trough. Germany, mindful of a stream of its people expelled from Eastern Europe and East Prussia after the war, and a trickle of refugees coming over during the post-war decades from East Germany, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, is throwing its doors open.

Serbia and Croatia, which also suffered great population displacements only two decades ago, are offering safe passage. In the United States, a group of Democratic congressional leaders and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley called on Obama to accept many more refugees.

And in Hungary, too, ordinary people have come out to help the Syrians. Ferenc Gyurcsany, a former prime minister, opened his home to a Syrian family. His wife and five kids unanimously supported his decision.

Perhaps, in keeping with Orwell’s writing, we could be redeemed by these and other acts of kindness, letting Orban, Trump, Putin and their ilk turn into pigs if they so wish.


Right-wing governments try to make political hay out of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Sadly, the Middle Eastern refugee crisis has been a godsend for racists everywhere.

Britain is responsible for this wave of refugees, having participated in the invasion of Iraq.

The refugee crisis feeds nicely into Cameron’s plans to get the UK out of the EU.

Republicans in the US Congress are against allowing a single additional Syrian to America.

In keeping with Orwell’s writing, we should let Orban, Trump, Putin & Co. turn into pigs.